Epic poetry


Epic poetry refers to long poems which are modelled on a range of classical epics. These include:

  • Ancient Greek poems, such as: Homer's Iliad, which tell the stories of the fall of the city of Ilium
    • Homer's Odyssey, which recounts the adventures of Odysseus
  • Ancient Roman poems, such as:
    • Virgil's Aeneid, which tells of the founding of Rome by the hero Aeneas.

The epic is usually a long, book-length poem (hence a common usage of the word to mean ‘lengthy'), and is usually divided into cantos, or chapters, often called ‘books'. Originally, the term epic would have referred to oral folk poetry, whose originator would not be known and which would be told aloud. The literary epic, however, refers to the epics that are written down and whose authors are known.

Epic conventions

Epic poetry follows the conventions used in the classical epics. These conventions include:

  • The invocation, in which the gods are invoked in support of the poet at the beginning of the poem
  • Starting in medias res, a Latin phrase for ‘in the middle of things'. The epic tends to thrust the reader into the heat of the action and explain the background story later
  • A statement of the theme of the poem, usually in the first few lines
  • Use of deus ex machina, a literary device in which the gods provide a miraculous solution or diversion in the plot
  • A patriotic focus, such as the founding or fall of a great city. To support this, epics frequently give details of the genealogy of heroes, or catalogue the ships in a fleet, for example.


  • The epic tends to use elaborate sentence structure and to draw upon Latinate, rather than Anglo-Saxon, vocabulary. This increases the sense of importance of the plot, protagonist(s) and location of the poem
  • Epic poetry also tends to use epic similes, similes which are longer than usual and extremely detailed, to the extent that they may temporarily take over the narrative of the text. These are also known as Homeric similes.


  • Epics tend to emphasise war and fighting, thus demonstrating the bravery (or otherwise) of its characters
  • There is usually a struggle of some kind, which may be mental as well as physical, which the hero must overcome
  • The gods feature heavily in classical epics as the source of human events, and writers often show the gods playing with humankind for amusement.


  • The Faerie Queene (1596), by Edmund Spenser, is one of the longest poems in English,and tells of a fairy queen called Gloriana, and the successes and struggles of her kingdom. It is a thinly-disguised tribute to Queen Elizabeth I and the Tudor dynasty
  • John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) is one of the most famous epics in English Literature.  Milton tells the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, as told in the book of Genesis.  Though Adam is ostensibly the hero, Milton's vivid and often sympathetic descriptions of Satan have caused critics to debate the hero-figure in Paradise Lost. Like the classical epics, Milton opens his poem with a statement of his theme and an invocation.
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